A Look Back: Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Revisiting one of Disney’s Biggest Animation Risks, 20 Years Later
To any former readers of my A Look Back series here on this NotVeryProfoundFilm Medium Blog, Hello! Welcome Back! It has been some time since my last entry into this series, the last one being my essay on Satoshi Kon’s Anime Classic, Perfect Blue. For those new here, this series of opinionated essays covers films that are (typically) over 10 years old, and that hold some level of meaning to me personally, with past entries including Tron: Legacy and Speed Racer. I cannot even begin to list off all of the planned other pieces I planned to do for this project over the past two years, just letting them fall by the wayside due to a lack of motivation, but hopefully, and I do mean hopefully, I will get to write about all of them over the next few months! That being said, having spent last year binging almost all of the Disney Animated Film Catalog, I felt it best to kickstart this official rebooting of the A Look Back series with at least one of those movies, and shockingly I landed on Atlantis: The Lost Empire and not Monsters INC. or Treasure Planet, despite having more admiration for them. So why choose this film instead? Again, with the word hopefully, I plan to get to the bottom of that by the end of this article, so stick with me, and maybe you will also find out! Without further ado, let us take A Look Back at Disney’s 2001 Animated Film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
In Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an inexperienced young adventurer becomes the key to unraveling an ancient mystery when he joins up with a group of daredevil explorers to find the legendary lost empire of Atlantis. A naive-but-determined museum cartographer Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), dreams of completing the quest begun by his late grandfather, a famous explorer. When a journal surfaces, an eccentric billionaire funds an expedition and the action shifts to high gear.
The expedition is headed by Commander Rourke ( James Garner), who also led the Journal recovery expedition. The crew includes Helga (Claudia Christian); Vinny (Don Novello), a demolitions expert; Molière (Corey Burton), a geologist; Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris), a medical officer; Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), a mechanic; Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley), a radio operator; Cookie (Jim Varney), a chuckwagon chef; and several trained soldiers. They set out in the massive submarine “Ulysses”, but are attacked by a mechanical leviathan that guards Atlantis’ entrance. The “Ulysses” is destroyed, leaving only a handful of survivors.
Following the Journal’s instructions, they enter a cavern and travel through a dormant volcano, after Milo accidentally started a fire at camp, dropped into a hole, eventually arriving at Atlantis, where they are met by Kida (Cree Summer), miraculously still alive and young.
Against her father’s wishes, Kida enlists Milo to help Atlantis regain its old glory, and leads him to an underwater mural in the sunken part of the city. Milo learns from the mural that “The Heart of Atlantis” provides the people there with longevity, and once powered their devices, via smaller crystals they all wear. He discovers a page of the Journal, which also contained this information, is missing. Returning to the surface, he is confronted by Rourke, who reveals he has the missing page, revealing he is planning to steal the Heart and sell it at a high price, callously not caring that about the Atlanteans’ fate. He and the crew capture Milo and Kida, and Rourke mortally wounds the King of Atlantis (Leonard Nimoy) demanding to know where the Heart is.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire, is a 2001 sci-fi animated film from Walt Disney Feature Animation, being the 41st film in the Disney animated catalog. The film grosses $181 Million at the Box Office on a budget ranging somewhere between $90 and $120 Million, with the film opening to very mixed reactions from both audiences and critics alike.
From the get go, the plot of the film was already a step above previous animated Disney outings in terms of its sheer scope, opting to go on this fantastical Science-Fiction adventure ala Jules Verne-style alternate history with different science for the world these characters inhabit. This had to be something Disney knew as well, as while there is a Disney Princess in the film in the form of Kida, this was far away from its classic Princess tales like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, or The Little Mermaid. Instead, we have this mystical tale of the legendary Lost City of Atlantis being infused with pure sci-fi spectacle on the big screen with some truly breathtaking animation.
That being said, the quality of the film also is worth talking about, with the aforementioned reactions from both general audiences and film critics, as they were mixed to say the least. And I would agree to some extent that the film is a mixed bag, as it often feels either a bit too ambitious during certain portions of the film or as if it were being pulled in two different directions in other places, feeling as if you can still feel warring visions over the final product. Even still, the film remains a tentpole, in my eyes at least, for what mainstream 2D animation could be twenty years ago, and what it can still be today, should Disney ever find the will or guts to give audiences another 2D-Style film, with their last one coming back in 2009 with Princess and the Frog.
What I love about the film personally is that it wears its heart on its sleeve. The film, to this day, still feels like it was trying to be so much more than what it actually ended up being, wanting to be an animated 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on crack rather than some random throwaway Sci-Fi kids movie like the eventual failure that was Mars Needs Moms. With Atlantis: The Lost Empire, you get a truly spectacular opening sequence showcasing the fall of the city of Atlantis, a breathtaking setting once gotten to, and some wild animated set pieces that still hold up today in 2021, twenty years later.
For further analysis into Atlantis: The Lost Empire and its overall story, check out this video essay from Ladyknightthebrave over on Youtube, covering the film’s storytelling as a whole! It is indeed, worth the watch!
In terms of characters, the film offers a host of variation ranging from the loveable nerd that is Milo Thatch, to the now iconic Princess Kida (shoutout to Doja Cat for the perfect cosplay a few months back!), to Rourke being a genuinely well-done villain, or to Leonard Nimoy doing some voice work which was always a treat to hear in any film he leant his voice to, even Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The rest of the Expedition Crew also feel like mostly lived-in characters that make sense for existing within the world presented within the film here, with the majority coming off as actual humans, and others, like Moliére, feeling like total caricatures. Regardless, the variety in the characters is genuinely great, with representation of a number of different backgrounds and for 2001, I guess all else I can say is good job Disney, everyone in this wasn’t a white character!
And in speaking on the aforementioned Rourke… for those fans of Disney Villains, while I don’t find Rourke to be anything special in terms of being iconic as a character or anything despite being a proper villain here, he does have arguably one of the best, most out-there deaths in any Disney film to date. Seriously, I can imagine children in the theater not being okay when his transformation into a monster happened. But even then, it fits his character as the man got too greedy and had no care for the people of Atlantis, just wanting the fame, glory, and wealth for himself, with it literally consuming him in the grand climax.
In the end, is Atlantis: The Lost Empire an animated Masterpiece like Monsters Inc. or Treasure Planet (hot take, I know)? No, absolutely not. Watching the film back in 2021, it feels pretty clear as to why this didn’t become a major success. That being said, despite middling reviews, the film still turned a profit and scored a direct-to-DVD sequel from Disney, though its planned integration into the Disney Theme Parks was shelved in favor of the eventual success that would be Finding Nemo. I was still a very young child when this first released, so I do not actually have any memory of how the film was marketed, if it was even marketed well, or if it was another Treasure Planet situation where it was clear Disney was praying on its downfall, but whatever the reason may have been, with the failure that the film was in Disney’s eyes, since its release, Atlantis, like its pseudo-sister film, Treasure Planet, has been abandoned by The Mouse for two decades…
… That was until a few weeks ago when rumors starting swirling online that Disney was eyeing Tom Holland for the role of Milo Thatch in a live-action remake of the often overlooked 2001 film. Will it happen? I am not holding my breath for it as it would feel very out of left field for Disney to course correct from their current trend of remaking their already popular films like Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the upcoming The Little Mermaid, with Atlantis being a genuinely random choice for them to do in the midst of this wave of live action remakes.
With that being said, Atlantis is the target film for what Disney should be remaking into live-action films if they are hellbent on doing this. It was a misstep for them, not being the success that most would assume they wanted, both financially and critically, and with how much technology has advanced, attempting to recreate or reimagine the visuals from the animated film with CGI and sets is much more possible now than ever. So Disney, if you want to keep remaking your entire catalog of animation, if you would like to focus on Atlantis, The Black Cauldron, and Treasure Planet for a bit, that would be rad!
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